Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
III: The First Contacts
III: The First Contacts
It fell to the artillery to receive and deliver the first blows of the Division in Italy. The 28th Battery of 5 Field Regiment opened fire in support of the Indian brigade on the afternoon of 14 November and a few men of a sister battery, the 27th, deploying the same afternoon, were slightly wounded by shellfire. Fourth Field Regiment, like the 5th, was allotted a gun area north of Casalanguida, and on the 15th 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment sited guns at the crossing of the Sinello and Osento rivers and in the country between, though for several days they had no employment. The fluidity of the front was demonstrated by the orders to a troop of B Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment to patrol the roads south of the New Zealand area as far as Castiglione Messer Marino, over ten miles from the left flank, in the hope of meeting the Canadians; and further by the attack of an enemy patrol during page 49 the night of 14–15 November on the bridge over the Sinello on the Division's main axis. This bridge was the only one in the area left unblown by the enemy in his retreat – an oversight which he tried to rectify not only by gunfire but also by infiltrating demolition parties, so that A Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment had to be detailed to guard it.
As units assembled in the forward area over roads roughened by a growing congestion of traffic and by intermittent rain, the Indian brigade's infantry was edging towards the river with New Zealand support. On the evening of 15 November the guns of 5 Field Regiment by two prearranged bombardments helped the 6/13 Royal Frontier Force Rifles to a quiet occupation of the hilltop hamlet of San Marco. The 16th Panzer Division, however, was still in possession of Tornareccio, Archi and Perano, which lay on a road running along the crest of a ridge to the Sangro, parallel with and west of the Division's axis. To release it for a further advance, 1/5 Essex Regiment was relieved on 18 November from the task of protecting from the west the all-important road from Casalanguida to Atessa by B Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment and then, after a few hours, by the vanguard of 4 Armoured Brigade – 22 Motor Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell.1 The Indians had by now seized hills north and north-west of Atessa overlooking the Sangro and conveniently placed for attacks on Perano and Archi.
1 Col T. C. Campbell, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Waiouru MC; born Colombo, 20 Dec 1911; farm appraiser; CO 22 Bn Sep 1942–Apr 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Jan–Dec 1945; Area Commander, Wellington, 1947; Commander of Army Schools, 1951–53; Commander, Fiji Military Forces, 1953–56; Commandant, Waiouru Military Camp, Sept 1956–.
2 Col R. L. McGaffin, DSO, ED; Wellington; born Hastings, 30 Aug 1902; company manager; 27 (MG) Bn 1939–41; comd 3 Army Tank Bn (in NZ) Mar–Oct 1942; CO 27 (MG) Bn Feb–Apr 1943; CO 19 Armd Regt Apr 1943–Aug 1944; comd Adv Base, Italy, Aug–Oct 1944.
Hastily called up from Atessa, the assaulting tanks formed up on the saddle between Monte Torretta and Monte Sentinella, two hills forming a ridge running roughly north and south and parallel with the more westerly ridge crowned by the roadside houses of Perano. Hence, at 3.30, while the smoke canisters of air-bursting shells bounced on the slopes east of the objective, trailing white streamers of smoke through the air, the fourteen Shermans, followed page 51 by infantry from the Punjab, advanced to the first tank action ever fought by New Zealanders. The attack was double-pronged. While two troops drove across country to gain the road and enter Perano from the south, the other two, in a small right hook, were directed round behind Monte Sentinella to the riverside road called the Strada Sangritana, from which branches off southward the road winding up the ridge to Perano. The plan was thus to attack the village simultaneously from the south-east and the north.
Perano was a stiff objective, being defended by the panzer troops with greater determination and resources than report had suggested. Continuous shellfire harried the advance. The two right-hand troops of tanks, emerging from behind the lee of Sentinella, one still on the low hills overlooking the Strada Sangritana and the other across the road in thick olive groves, ran into murderous fire at short range, probably from self-propelled guns sited near the turn-off to Perano. At least four tanks were put out of action, seven of their crews killed and five wounded; and among the Indians on foot losses were heavy. The attack on Perano from the northern flank had to be abandoned. The approach from the south and east across country fared better. Here the tanks were troubled chiefly by the terrain. The mile-long route westwards from the start line to the objective was a rough, winding track softened by rain. The tanks had to cross a gully, climb a spur, drop down to ford a stream, and deploy in troops for the actual assault up a steep, wooded hill. Neither these obstacles nor the spite of machine-guns and mortars could prevent four of them from reaching the hilltop. Two tanks of headquarters troop, taking a more northerly route up the hill, were the first into Perano, entering the town from the north at 4.40 in time to see other tanks approach from the south. Half an hour later the Indian infantry arrived and with workmanlike expedition, which the New Zealanders admired, consolidated the capture. The Germans, who had escaped before the arrival of our tanks, held on in a cluster of houses about a thousand yards east of the Sangro bridge, perhaps fearing an attempt to rush it. Later in the evening, after an escaped British prisoner of war had seen five German tanks, two self-propelled guns, and two anti-tank guns retire hurriedly across the bridge, the charge was blown. Before this broader object of their attack had been achieved, the New Zealand tanks had withdrawn from Perano, leaving the Indians in possession.
Success in this action was plucked out of unusual difficulties. The tanks had been on the road for four days previously and the time for preparation was so short that they were not properly stripped for action, nor was much reconnaissance possible; the plan was founded on faulty information about the enemy; the going was page 52 bad; and the control of manoeuvre during the assault was gravely handicapped and the assault probably made more costly by wireless silence and the need to communicate under fire by hand signals. Had the identity of the New Zealanders remained hidden from the enemy, the action would still have published to him the skilful leadership of the opposing commander of tanks and the resourcefulness of crews that were yet novices in armoured warfare. But their identity was in fact revealed by papers belonging to C Squadron found by enemy infantry in one of the knocked-out tanks after our other tanks had withdrawn, though several days elapsed before the Germans confirmed the presence, not merely of a brigade, but of a whole division of New Zealanders.
The Perano fight implied that the end of resistance south and east of the river on the Division's front was in sight, and it was followed that night by the withdrawal of the enemy's heavy weapons and transport from Archi, the last enemy observation point south of the river, higher up the same ridge; but there was a last sharp clash there between the Indians and an enemy rearguard consisting of a company of infantry and a platoon of engineers with orders to hold the town as long as possible. The Indian attack on 19 November was to have been supported by a troop of New Zealand tanks with direct fire, but the fire plan had to be abandoned early because of thick mist. The Indians spent a day and a night in hard and confused fighting in Archi before the Germans retired, the last enemy troops in the sector to fight with their backs to the river.
On the right, the hills sloping down into the Sangro valley were found clear on the 18th, and on the 20th the Divisional Cavalry Regiment assumed responsibility for this flank; in the centre the Indians dominated the riverbank on either side of the blown bridge and patrolled across the river; and on the left a patrol of 22 Battalion, entering Tornareccio on the morning of the 19th, found mines and booby traps laid by departing Germans a few hours before. Finally, far to the south at the very extremity of the Division's responsibilities, the troop of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment sent to Castiglione to make contact with the Canadians found them at Agnone.
It was now possible to close up to the Sangro line for the attack, which was still scheduled for the night of 20–21 November. As part of the general forward movement, 36 Survey Battery posted its flash-spotters and sound-rangers on an arc of vantage points overlooking the river valley, the better to locate by sight and sound the guns of the enemy, and all three New Zealand field regiments, including for the first time in Italy the 6th (Lieutenant-Colonel page 53 Walter),1 deployed along the bed of the Appello, a tributary stream of the Sangro.
New Zealand infantry now appeared in the line, 6 Brigade coming forward to occupy the right-hand half of the Indian brigade's sector, between the round hill of Monte Marcone on the right and the river junction on the left – the front upon which the Division's assault on the winter position was to be made. The brigade was ordered to put standing patrols on the south bank of the river and to send patrols across on the night of 19–20 November. A ten-mile march on foot, broken by lying up from dawn to dusk on the 19th north of Atessa, was a tiring preliminary, especially for the support platoons carrying 3-inch mortars and machine guns. Before midnight the battalions were in position along the line of the Strada Sangritana, occupying a front of less than a mile between the Appello and Pianello streams, with 26 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Fountaine)2 on the right, the 25th (Lieutenant-Colonel Morten)3 in the centre, and the 24th (Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly)4 on the left and with forward companies on the road. Drenching rain sent the troops to the shelter of buildings and even of the bivouac tents so much regretted during the embarkation at Alexandria.
2 Col D. J. Fountaine, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Westport; born Westport, 4 Jul 1914; company secretary; CO 20 Bn Jul–Aug 1942; 26 Bn Sep 1942–Dec 1943, Jun–Oct 1944; comd NZ Adv Base Oct 1944–Sep 1945; wounded 19 Nov 1941.
The Sangro itself, running in several channels between banks of gravel and water-worn boulders, reminded some of our men of the rivers that flow eastwards from the Southern Alps across the Canterbury Plains. Knee-deep in dry weather, as it was when 78 Division arrived on its southern bank, this baffling river may rise five or six feet in a day after autumn rain and fill the whole riverbed with a flood swirling along at 25 knots. So sudden and incalculable are these changes of mood that a patrol which has waded across with ease may find its return barred by a current too swift to be breasted by the strongest swimmer. Though the stony bed of the river is firm enough to support an improvised roadway, the approaches to it lie across soft, friable soil which is apt to crumble under the weight of motor vehicles. This was the capricious stream that New Zealand infantry patrols were to explore in the coming week, while the attack was deferred, modified and finally recast.
Infantry patrols are primarily the antennae of an army, feeling sensitively forward to flash signals, sometimes of danger, sometimes of opportunity, to the brain; but they serve purposes other than short-range reconnaissance. They may enable a force to grasp and hold the moral and material mastery of no-man's-land; they may be used to keep alive the aggressive spirit, which stagnates so easily in a war of static emplacement; they may, by swift and silent apparition, inflict casualties on the enemy, unnerve him, tire him by the need for vigilance, derange his projects or destroy dumps and installations; they may be employed to mislead him as to the direction of an imminent thrust or to force him to broaden his front; they may protect other troops on specialised missions in areas exposed or disputed; and those patrols also serve that only stand and wait, observing by eye and ear and ready to counter the patrols of the other side. Many of these aims were exemplified in the patrolling of the Division between the night of 19–20 November, when 6 Brigade moved into the line, and the night of 27–28 November, when the Sangro was crossed and the heights behind it assaulted.
In addition to the standing patrols, the Division sent out during this period forty-four patrols, ranging in strength from two men to a platoon, all but two of them by night. Of this number twenty-six succeeded in crossing the river, five made no attempt to cross, and thirteen tried but failed. Few failed for want of grit and determination: page 55 one patrol tried at eight different places before returning cold, wet and frustrated; the officer leading another struggled alone to an island in mid-river, only to see movement on the northern bank that compelled him to rejoin his men on the southern; a third patrol crossed two streams but was foiled in four attempts on the northernmost channel, losing for a few hours one man whom the current swept over to the German side. On different nights the water varied in level from knee- to neck-high, but all the patrols that made the crossing found it necessary to link hands for mutual support, stretching out like the impatient souls in the vestibule of Virgil's hell ‘with longing for the farther shore’. Some floundered under the weight of soaking equipment in the quagmire of irrigation ditches north of the river. Only a quarter of the patrols located any enemy by sight or sound, and of this eleven no more than four exchanged fire. The casualties of eight days of patrolling were 13 – five killed, six wounded and two taken prisoner; but six of these casualties occurred in a minefield south of the river and another six in the only two daylight patrols. That is to say, from the twenty-four patrols that prowled the northern bank by night, all members returned unharmed except one wounded officer.
When the weather forced the Army Commander to postpone the offensive, he ordered vigorous patrolling in the New Zealand sector to increase pressure on the enemy while 5 Corps, on the right, expanded its existing bridgehead across the river to accommodate the substantial strength needed to launch a more deliberate operation. The risk of sacrificing surprise was accepted. As if in pursuance of this policy, patrolling on the night of 20–21 November was eventful. One party from B Company 25 Battalion climbed the northern cliffs and penetrated to a group of buildings a mile beyond the river, where Germans were located. A fighting patrol from 24 Battalion disturbed two enemy parties laying mines across the river and fired on them from the southern bank, and a second fighting patrol had a brush with an enemy outpost on a steep knoll north of the confluence, inflicting casualties. The officer in command himself returned wounded at 6.45 next morning, having been out nearly twelve hours. On the same night of 20–21 November a patrol from A Company 24 Battalion, while protecting engineers clearing mines from our side of the river, lost three men killed and three wounded in a minefield.
The level of the river steadily rose and patrols on the three following nights encountered increasing hazards, until on the night of 23–24 November Sangro's pomp of waters was unwithstood; two patrols turned back from a current which in places foamed neck-high and swept men off their feet. Though the standing patrols reported a drop of a foot in the river level on the 24th, only one of three fighting patrols that night – 18 men from C Company 26 Battalion – reached the far side. There they searched two houses and drew fire from a third. A three-man reconnaissance patrol farther upstream battled for three hours before getting across.
The Sangro appeared to be at its most obstructive on the night of 25–26 November. It proved too much for each of six parties, including three from 21 and 23 Battalions of 5 Brigade, which had now come in on the right of 6 Brigade. The speed of the current made it impossible to stand in water up to the hips, and it became clear that ropes would be needed for a full-scale crossing. The only passage of the river that night was made by Major Bailey,1 accompanied by two men of D Company 21 Battalion.
Fine weather was followed by a fall in the river and by redoubled activity after dark on the 26th. Every battalion sent out patrols to test crossings and routes up the cliffs, and in all nine parties visited the northern bank, some of them probing deeply. Second-Lieutenant McGregor2 and a companion from C Company 21 Battalion, exploring for about ten hours, made a wide circuit between two hills where they found buildings occupied by Germans, and another far-ranging patrol from B Company, led by Second-Lieutenant Swainson,3 discovered barbed wire and a trip-wire along the top of the cliffs farther east. Of three reconnaissance patrols sent out by 6 Brigade, that of 26 Battalion was guided by an Italian civilian to a shallow ford. The same battalion provided an escort while Second-Lieutenant Farnell4 and men from 8 Field Company reconnoitred a route from the proposed Bailey bridge site to the lateral road north of the river.
Early planning had provided for the capture of the hilly ground in the angle of the Aventino and Sangro rivers as an essential part of the major offensive, since a force occupying this ground would enfilade troops crossing in the reach below the river junction. The Divisional Commander seized on the delay imposed by the weather to order the Indian brigade to carry out this preparatory task, involving the capture of the two hilltop villages of Sant' Angelo and Altino and a feature called Il Calvario.
The Crossing of the Sangro, 27–28 November 1943
Persistence was rewarded, for on the night of 23–24 November the Germans withdrew across the Rio Secco, a small tributary of the Aventino, towards Casoli; and on the 25th all objectives were firmly in the hands of the Indian brigade. This success was won against miserable weather, a swollen river, steep country and a tenacious and well-sited enemy; and it ensured that the New Zealanders would begin their attack (to borrow a phrase from a different context) with ‘no enemies on the left’.
The movement of a mechanised army against mechanically contrived obstructions throws a heavy burden on its engineers, and on the Sangro in these days of deepening winter it was very much an engineers' war. Everyone respects a sapper, for the sapper is everyone's friend, a succouring ubiquity, clearing a track through minefields for the infantryman, tidying up after tanks, passing an accurate orientation to surveyors of the artillery, running a railway, building a bridge, patching a road for supply units or dragging the erring driver from the ditch of his choice. Whether operating a theodolite or a shovel, a bulldozer or a mine detector, the engineer needs most of the soldierly qualities in generous measure – coolness under fire, high technical skill, industry, cheerfulness and infinite patience to do again what has been undone by the force of nature, the malevolence of the enemy, or even the negligence of his own troops. In the fortnight before the attack the engineers of the Division found full employment upon roads, minesweeping and bridge-building.
The repair and maintenance of roads in the Division's area was a continuous labour. The surfaces were damaged at the outset by demolitions and shell holes and then by streaming rain and incessant traffic, which churned wet roads into mud and scarred them with deep ruts, especially at the many bends; heavy steel-shod tanks were harsh abrasives, and under their weight and that of ditched trucks the edges crumbled. At all times working parties had to stand by with pick and shovel to make minor repairs on the spot. Though men from other units not engaged in operations shared in this work and civilian labour was recruited from the villages, most of it fell to the engineers. Attention was given first to the supply road in the rear of the Division's sector, but when the last of the three field companies arrived on 19 November it was possible to set both 6 Field Company page 60 and 8 Field Company to work in the Sangro valley, with 7 Field Company (between Gissi and Atessa) occasionally sending parties to help the forward companies.
It was at detours where the Germans had demolished bridges and culverts that road maintenance was most arduous. The deviations were made by bulldozers, but thereafter (since bulldozers were much in demand) they had to be kept in order mainly by manual toil. So long as they remained unbridged on the Division's routes work on them was never finished. Often steep, uneven and soft, they were danger spots where a single mismanaged truck might halt the flow of traffic, and they were always capable of improvement by levelling, widening, metalling and the filling-in of ruts. The detour over the Osento stream, where so much delay occurred, continued to occupy large parties of sappers until 23 November, when 7 Field Company built a 150-foot Bailey bridge over it. The demolition of the bridge over the Pianello stream on the Strada Sangritana, being in full view of the enemy, had to be worked on by night but the noise of the bulldozers infallibly brought down gunfire, so that the only protection afforded by the darkness arose from the circumstance that predicted shooting is commonly less accurate than observed. All such work done on the Strada Sangritana incurred the hostile interest of German gunners.
Roads and tracks had to be made as well as maintained. Sites for bridges across the Sangro were selected after reconnaissance on the night of 20–21 November; one was rather less than a mile downstream of the confluence and the other was a mile and a half farther to the right. Both lay at the end of existing tracks across the Piazzano; but the tracks had to be almost totally reconstructed to bear heavy traffic. The task progressed slowly night by night, often in pitch darkness and in stinging rain squalls that blinded the drivers bringing up equipment and made their journeys a nightmare of anxiety. Engineers cut logs to provide corduroy for laying on the tracks and every night repair materials were brought up to a dump on the Strada Sangritana. So the work went on. When the time came to attack, the left-hand route was still no more than an assault track, but on the right there was a firm, wide road, fit for use in almost all weathers.
To make movement not only possible but safe from mines was another aim of the sappers. From 18 November until the eve of the offensive, they swept the road from Atessa to the Strada Sangritana, the Strada Sangritana itself, the tracks across the Piazzano, the Perano–Archi road and the north bank of the river, as well as removing unexploded charges from several bridges and culverts – work done sometimes by day under fire.page 61
The standard Bailey bridging equipment for a single division proved woefully insufficient for the needs of the divisional engineers, and by steady increments they finally accumulated five complete sets. With this material they built six bridges between the 21st and 27th, one over the Osento and the other five over demolitions along the Strada Sangritana. This bulky bridging material was brought into the Division's area by the spacious floats of 18 Tank Transporter Company and thence moved to the sites by 5 Field Park Company. This latter company was the custodian of the engineers' heavy equipment – the bulldozers which moved lesser mountains in filling craters and pushing through detours, the recovery vehicles, and the mechanical shovels which dug the shingle for roads.
No part of the Division was more dependent upon the roadmaking of the engineers than the Army Service Corps. To sustain the flow of supplies to the field maintenance centre south of Gissi, whence the fighting units drew rations, ammunition and petrol, was no trivial or easy assignment. Drivers using a supply line that stretched back as far as Altamura and San Severo found the way long and rough; the weather was foul and many vehicles were late in arriving from Egypt; but no one went short of essentials. For the coming attack ammunition companies began on the 15th a dumping programme which had made available 700 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition for each gun within a week – 500 on gun positions and 200 in dumps. Between 22 and 30 November the Division handled 795 rounds a gun, a total of more than 76,000.
For the first time since May in Tunisia, the New Zealanders were disposed as a division in the field. In a posture of attack, they awaited only the word to go forward.